Know the rules so you can break them

Whenever you get up to speak in public, the audience has certain expectations about what you are going to say and how you’re going to say it, based on context: where you are, what you look like, who the audience themselves are. This is perfectly satirized in this meta-TED talk:

Everything about the TED format is pointed out and executed perfectly. It’s almost difficult to watch TED talks after watching this talk, because so many of them are cast from the same mold. It reminded me too of this classic example of a meta-academic talk:

There is only one word in this talk. And yet the tone of voice, the graphs and bullet points, and the story arc of it are all clear and very familiar if you’ve ever sat through a research talk. (This is also a common improv game of scenes done in gibberish, which shows you don’t need words to tell a story.) In both cases, the speakers are showing that the performance element of their talks, the delivery (from vocal inflection to props to body language) can be completely divorced from content. Delivering material in a certain style tells the audience what to expect.

This is as true in comedy as it is in academia. Experienced comics will tell you that you can write a brilliant joke but if you don’t say it in a way that tells the audience to laugh, or if you talk right through them as they laugh, it won’t land. There’s a style of presentation in standup comedy, outside of actual humorous content, that tells the audience what they can expect.

At a first pass, if you’re looking to give a good talk, or tell a good joke, or communicate basically anything to any audience, it helps to be aware of the norms around how material is delivered. Basic storytelling and conversational tools are important too, of course.

But I think these rules are also made to be broken. Going outside the norm when you’re giving an academic talk projects confidence and mastery. Well crafted comedy can be used to discuss tough real-world subjects in memorable ways. Taking tips from performers on timing, stagecraft, and the many ways an idea can be explored helps you to not only understand the expectations of an audience, but also to surpass them and create something new.

Diversity in Science Communication

I have been thinking lately, about how much public engagement is aimed at people who already have access to science and education (too much), about the importance of science in public debate (see: March for Science), and about whose voices are routinely excluded from those discussions. So with thanks/apologies to Flavia Dzodan & DN Lee, my science communication will be intersectional or it will be bullshit.

I want everyone to have access to scientific ideas, to scientific habits, to the radical notion that we are each entitled to talk science with each other (though we may come from different backgrounds, whether in science or in culture). But we must acknowledge that some people already have this access more than others. Science communication should not only be aimed at those from highly educated backgrounds, those with family wealth, those with internet access and science capital and a sense of entitlement. If we ignore the vast majority of people who can engage with science, who can become scientists, then what are we really even doing?

President Barack Obama hosts the second White House Science Fair celebrating the student winners of a broad range of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) competitions from across the country. The President views exhibits of student work, ranging from breakthrough research to new inventions, in the Red Room of the White House, Feb. 7, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)

Part of the appeal of science is supposed to be our wonder at the way the world is, a willingness to look below the surface and upend our pre-existing assumptions. So why would we accept a system in which access to science depends (still! after all these years!) on surface traits like skin color, gender, or age? It may be tempting to stick to our ideal vision of science as a meritocracy, where all will be rewarded according to their capability, but decades of research on unconscious bias in hiring, retention, and negotiation across science and engineering fields show that if we passively wait for things to get better, we are really just endorsing the status quo.

I love the community of people I have found in science communication. But I can’t help but notice how much of the administrative and organizational work is done by people who are still being disadvantaged in mainstream science: women, people of color, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities. Even the fact that so much of science communication is done by younger researchers, who face a perceived stigma around this work, rather than older researchers with more career stability, is incredibly unfair. We need to actively include these communities in our engagement programs  without asking them to shoulder an unfair portion of the load. Science communication has never been about clever men showing off, but it sometimes looks that way, which is just as bad for the future of science.

You might ask, why do marginalized communities and young researchers take up the banner of science communication more often? Who stays in science is largely determined by how well they feel they fit in. People who don’t resemble the stereotypical scientist know the importance of representation, the importance of seeing people who look like you in the field you want to pursue. Younger researchers are also closer to career decision points, remember the factors that led them to choose science, and still have the passion to provoke that decision in others. It’s encouraging that so many people are still working hard to communicate science well to all audiences… but we must continue to support that work if we want it to continue! Science is an activity done by people, and it is at its best when it makes use of the full spectrum of human experience and knowledge.

I refuse to let science communication put people in boxes, when science is about thinking outside the box. We can do better.

Two Cultures, or Many?

One of the most pernicious myths in neuroscience is that of the left brain/right brain divide. You have surely heard it before: the idea that half our brain is logical, scientific, and calculating while the other is creative, artistic, and empathic. There is no evidence for such a distinction in the actual brain, but the simplistic categories give people easy ways to identify themselves, and others, as members of tribes with specific values. It’s just as easy to feel good about yourself for supposedly having a brain that’s rational or creative as it is to put someone else down for being too cold or impulsive. This myth isn’t about the brain or neuroscience at all: it’s about putting ourselves, and others, into groups.

false dichotomy

In the pursuit of knowledge, similar false dichotomies can arise. Those seeking to understand science may think of themselves as fundamentally different from those seeking to grasp history or literature, and vice versa. This was most famously written about in C.P. Snow’s Two Cultures essay, where he noted the division and in fact the disdain that had arisen between intellectuals in the humanities and the sciences, and how this prevents people from pooling their knowledge to solve the great problems facing humanity. After all, if you do not respect the source of someone else’s knowledge, why would you bother to listen to them?

We should know better. After all, knowledge isn’t just a dry list of facts, but a set of underlying connections between those facts and ideas, as well as an understanding of context (whether it’s human context or physical context). People who study interdisciplinary fields like nanoscience, my area, know that a chemist can bring a very different approach than a physicist does to the same problem. Often both are useful in gaining understanding. Why not extend this same respect to the social sciences and humanities? And why do we not bat an eyelid when someone says they ‘don’t get’ science, when we’d be appalled if they said they couldn’t read?

In my view, an open mind is critical to any pursuit, whether it’s scientific, literary, or even comedic. Don’t limit yourself by how others think before you; go outside the pre-existing accepted framework to solve problems. Isn’t that true creativity, which is required for any academic pursuit as well as for the simple but rewarding task of making sense of this world? Rather than drawing a line between science and the arts, between types of people, we should share our knowledge and natures, expanding our understanding by sharing our humanity.

world

Hotwiring the Brain

The most complex electrical device we possess isn’t in our pockets, it’s in our heads. Ever since Emil du Bois-Reymond’s discovery of electrical pulses in the brain and Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s realisation that the brain was composed of separate pieces, called neurons, we have known that the brain’s behaviour stems from its independent electrical parts. Many scientists are studying electronic implants that can affect how our brains think and learn. New research on conducting polymers that work well in the body may bring us one step closer to the ability to manually overhaul our own brains.

Ramón y Cajal’s drawings of two types of neurons in 1899.

Ramón y Cajal’s drawings of two types of neurons in 1899.

The immediate brain health implications of plugging electronics into the brain, even with a very basic level of control, would be astounding. The connections in the brain can adapt in response to their environment, forming the basis of learning. This ‘plasticity’ means the brain could adapt in response to implanted electronics, for example by connecting to prosthetic limbs and learning to control them. Implantable electrodes which can excite or inhibit neural signals could also be used for treatments of disorders stemming from bad neural patterns, such as epilepsy and Parkinson’s disease.Since the 1970s, brain-computer interfaces have been studied intensively. Passive electrodes which can record brain waves are already in widespread medical use. Invasive but accurate mapping of brain activity can be done by cutting the skull open, as neurosurgeons do during surgery to avoid tampering with important areas. Less invasive methods like electroencephalography (EEG) are helpful but more sensitive to noise and unable to distinguish different brain regions, not to mention individual neurons. More active interfaces have been built for artificial retinas and cochleas, though the challenge of connecting to the brain consistently and for a long time makes them a very different thing from our natural eyes and ears. But what if we could directly change the way the brain works, with direct electronic stimulation?

However, current neural electrodes made from metal cause problems when left in the brain long term. The body views foreign bodies in the brain as a problem and over time protective cells work to minimize their impact. This immune response not only damages the brain region around the electrode, it actually works to encapsulate the electrode, insulating it electrically from the brain and removing its purpose in being there.

These issues arise because of how hard and unyielding metal is compared to tissue, as well as the defense mechanisms in the body against impurities in metal. Hypoallergenic metals are used to combat this issue in piercings and jewelry, but the brain is yet more sensitive than the skin to invasive metals. A new approach being researched by scientists is the use of conducting polymers to either coat metal electrodes or to even comprise them, removing metal from the picture altogether.

Conducting polymers are plastics, which are more soft and mechanically similar to living tissue than metal. Additionally, they conduct ions (as do neurons in the brain) and are excellent at transducing these to electronic signals, giving high sensitivity to neural activity. Researchers at the École des Mines de Saint-Étienne in France have now demonstrated flexible, implantable electrodes which can be used to directly sense of stimulate brain activity in live rats, without the immune reaction plaguing metal electrodes.

It’s a big step from putting organic electronics in the brain and reading out activity to uploading ourselves to the cloud. But while scientists work on improving resolution in space and time in order to fully map a brain, there is already new hope for those suffering from neurodegenerative diseases, thanks to the plasticity of the brain and the conductivity of plastic.

Science Capital

There are lots of different approaches to understanding who studies science and even who feels entitled to talk about it, but the idea of Science Capital is an especially interesting one.

Science capital comes from not just what you know, but also how you think, what you do, and who you know: the cultural factors that lead someone to feel interested and, perhaps more importantly, accepted in science. Enterprising Science have a nice video about the idea and how they are working to measure it:

For those working in science communication, it’s an important reminder to consider how we can not just pass on knowledge, but help others build up more science capital so that they feel entitled to be part of the conversation.

Sound and Waves

When I hear my mother’s voice, it sounds different from my father’s voice, and different from a bird or a drum. Why are the sounds we hear so varied, and how do they travel to our ears?

soundwaves

Sound is created when something moves rapidly, and creates a wave in the air around it. Our vocal cords do this, as does the skin on a drum, pushing the wave out into the world. This wave is made up of bands of air: more pressure, less pressure, high and low, back and forth as long as the sound lasts. Sound can only travel through something whose pressure can be changed, like air and water. So if you’re floating in space: perfect quiet.

But have you ever noticed how sound changes as it echoes around a gym? That’s because sound waves change when they bounce off things. A musical note will sound differently in a glass room than in one lined with velvet cushions. This affects musical instruments too! And the size of an instrument influences the sound it makes, from the deep growl of the tuba to the light chirp of a flute. Generally, bigger instruments make deeper sounds, with fewer waves per second.

And sound is not just high or low. Of course, it’s also soft or loud. But more interesting are differences that lead to a new tone or feel. For example, a violin and a flute might play the same note at the same volume, but they still won’t sound the same. Waves have amazing abilities to send subtle differences within a sound. And luckily for us, our ears use delicate hairs to detect these waves as they move through the air. Nerves connect the hairs to our brain, connecting us to the full orchestra of sound.

Gravitational Waves Discovered by LIGO

The world is abuzz with news that gravitational waves have been detected for the first time. This is a huge leap forward for scientists’ understanding of gravity! For all that we experience gravity every day as we (mostly) stay grounded on the Earth, figuring out exactly how it works has been a challenge.

Gravity draws things together, but how ? One of the most brilliant discoveries of Albert Einstein was realizing that objects with mass actually warp spacetime itself. If we imagine space as an enormous sheet, throwing a light object like a tennis ball onto it would only pull the sheet down a little, whereas a bowling ball would pull the sheet down significantly more. Everything with mass distorts the sheet though, affecting other objects on the sheet and even massless things like light as they pass through.

Spacetime_curvature

Seeing that gravity affected light was actually the first major proof of Einstein’s theory of general relativity. During an eclipse in 1919, light from a cluster of stars was seen to distort from its normal pattern as it passed close to the temporarily obscured Sun. But another consequence of Einstein’s work was the idea that the speed of light is a maximum speed for any particle or force, including gravitation, however it’s propagated. This implies that gravitational interactions can only happen so fast, and that if a huge gravitational event were to take place emitting a lot of gravitational energy, that energy would have a maximum speed to move through the universe.

What kind of huge gravitational event? Well, the strongest gravitational interactions we have been able to observe take place around black holes, whose mass causes gravitational forces that overcome even basic quantum mechanical ones that prevent matter from piling up on itself. So black holes are supermassive point objects, singularities with exceptionally strong gravity. And if two of them were to come together, their movement might create gravitational waves in spacetime itself that could be strong enough for us to detect.

The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) has been looking for gravitational waves using light as a ruler to measure whether spacetime is being warped. LIGO compares the length of two 2.5 mile long tunnels, set at right angles to each other, which would warp in alternation if a gravitational wave were to pass through them. The precision needed to see even very strong gravitational waves is tremendous, as we know from the fact that we don’t just observe our living rooms getting bigger and smaller in response to cosmic events. LIGO has been searching for gravitational waves since 1992, and improving its precision since then. Finally this week, they announced a signal!

LIGO_measurement_of_gravitational_waves

The gravitational waves detected come from two black holes merging, a billion light years from our planet. These black holes were enormous, 36 and 29 times the mass of our Sun. They merged into a black hole 62 times the mass of our Sun, converting three solar masses into energy as gravitational waves. It is these waves that the LIGO researchers managed to detect, corroborating their results at two separate facilities in Louisiana and Washington. The difference in lengths of the LIGO tunnels due to the gravitational waves was less than a millionth of the size of an atom, an astounding physical feat, and yet the LIGO collaboration is confident in its measurements to 99.9999%.

Validating a prediction made over a hundred years ago about the way mass warps spacetime is impressive enough, especially considering that gravity is still the least well understood of the four fundamental forces. But it’s also a beautiful new way to look at the stars, and at the massive universe beyond our planetary doorstep.